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NATO's top spot

df/sms/afp/reuters/March 24, 2009

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen looks like the top contender for NATO's civilian head, but Turkey might exercise its veto against the Dane because of a cartoon controversy that had inflamed the Muslim world.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen
NATO's secretary-general post traditionally goes to a EuropeanImage: AP

The United States gave its blessing to the appointment of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the next NATO secretary general in Brussels over the weekend, paving the way for him to take over the trans-Atlantic alliance's top civilian job in August.

Washington also enjoys strong support for the choice of Rasmussen from its three biggest European allies in the alliance -- Germany, France and the UK.

Although Rasmussen, 56, declined to publicly comment on the possibility of succeeding Dutch diplomat Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, he never officially ruled himself out as a candidate for a post that has traditionally gone to a European.

Dane favored by US and Europeans

Rasmussen is regarded as a loyal US ally and also appeals to Europeans for supporting closer ties between NATO and the European Union.

An analyst at the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations told the AFP news agency that the Danish prime minister has long enjoyed US support from politicians of all stripes.

"Rasmussen was at the head of the list for the former Bush administration, just as he is for the current Obama administration," analyst Daniel Korski said.

Indonesian Muslim protestors during an anti-Denmark rally in front of the Danish embassy in Jakarta
Danish caricatures inflamed passions in the Muslim worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Americans want someone who will continue to push for military engagement in Afghanistan," he said, pointing out that Denmark has some 750 soldiers stationed in the volatile southern part of the country where the Taliban insurgency is most active.

US and European support however does not guarantee that Rasmussen will become the appointed successor to Scheffer.

Turkish opposition possible

The main snag to Rasmussen's nomination, which needs to be approved by all members of the 26-nation alliance, is possible opposition to his candidacy from Turkey, a secular nation that is predominantly Muslim.

Denmark had outraged Muslims around the world in 2005 when the widely circulated Jyllands-Posten newspaper published a series of cartoon caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist.

Rasmussen, who has been prime minister since 2001, had refused to apologize for the cartoons invoking the right of the press to freedom of expression. The controversial cartoons, which were later republished by media around the globe, had sparked riots and attacks on Danish embassies in the Muslim world.

Cartoon controversy

"The cartoon crisis has a larger dimension than just Turkey," a Turkish official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters. "At a time when NATO is going to assume added responsibility in Afghanistan and Pakistan, having a secretary general with such an objectionable approach to billions of Muslims, is not the right approach to the Muslim world."

Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski shakes hands with chief US negotiator John Rood after an initial agreement on conditions for placing a US missile defense base in Poland was signed
Poland's foreign minister (right) is an unlikely candidateImage: AP

Turkey has also attacked Denmark for failing to revoke the broadcasting license of a television station that Ankara has accused of being a mouthpiece for Kurdish rebels opposed to the government. Adding fuel to the fire, Rasmussen had publicly stated in 2003 that he opposed full EU membership for Turkey.

"It may come to the veto," Retuers quoted the anonymous official as saying. "We will have to see."

The chances for other candidates for NATO's number two position, however, are dwindling.

Polish candidate viewed as antagonistic to Russia

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was rumored to be a favorite for secretary general post, but the appointment of a pro-American Polish national is viewed as antagonizing Russia at a time when NATO is seeking better relations with the Kremlin.

Russia has been bitterly opposed to the deployment of a US anti-missile defense shield on Polish territory.

Turkey had favored a Canadian for the post, since Ottawa supports Ankara's bid to join the EU. However Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay ruled himself out as a candidate on Sunday.

Canadian ruled out

NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Scheffer's successor should be announced at NATO summitImage: AP

MacKay's rumored candidacy had the apparent support of US Vice President Joe Biden as a reward for Canada's role in combat missions in dangerous southern Afghanistan. His spokesman, however, told reporters that the Canadian never sought the post even though Biden had downplayed an unwritten rule that the secretary general come from a European nation in exchange for NATO's top military post going to an American.

The choice for the number two position as secretary general is expected to be named at the April 3-4 NATO summit, but getting Turkey to agree to the choice of Rasmussen would be the key.